Five Days on Camino: From Lugo to Santiago

Five Days on Camino: From Lugo to Santiago

In the year 812—or so the story goes—a hermit in the northwest of Spain saw a strange light hovering over an empty field. When he and his compatriots later went to investigate, they found an old Roman tomb; and inside, miraculously preserved, was the body of Saint James the Apostle.

There are, of course, several difficulties with this story. First, James was supposed to have been martyred by being decapitated, but his body was found intact. (This is not to mention the 800-year preservation—although admittedly, under special circumstances, bodies have been preserved for far longer.) Moreover, since he was killed in Jerusalem, it is difficult to explain how his body traveled hundreds of miles to Spain. According to tradition, an angel deposited the body in an empty, rudderless boat, which miraculously sailed all the way to Spain; but this requires that we invoke a legend to explain another legend.

According to another story, St. James was later seen at the Battle of Clavijo, fighting with the Christians against the Moors. This earned him the title “Matamoros” (Moorslayer). Unfortunately, putting aside the obvious problem of resurrection, the Battle of Clavijo is now almost unanimously believed to be a fictitious battle, invented hundreds of years after it supposedly took place.

All of these are legends that stretch credulity to the breaking point. But legends, even if they are not literally true, can often teach us valuable lessons about history. The main thing that these stories tell us is that the Christians in Medieval Spain needed a figure to rally around, a religious and yet warlike figure to provide them with inspiration.

The reason for this is not difficult to discern. In the 9th century, Moors were in control of most of the Iberian Peninsula, with the Christians pushed into a pocket in the north. Fighting an enemy with a different religion, a bigger population, more resources, and a thriving culture was probably not terribly encouraging for the Christians. Thus, Santiago (Spanish for “Saint James”) was discovered, an event that eventually transformed the lonely region of Galicia into one of the most important religious sites in Christendom.

Since the 9th century, people have been visiting Santiago de Compostela, a tradition that has continued, unbroken, ever since. It would not be until the 11th century that people began visiting from beyond the Pyrenees, mostly because the north of Spain wasn’t in Christian hands until then. That route, the Camino Francés, is now the most famous and popular of all, taking the pilgrim from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port across the whole breadth of Spain to Santiago, a journey that takes about 30 days. An older route is the Camino Primitivo, which starts in Oviedo, in Asturias, and takes about two weeks. But nowadays there are innumerable routes you can take, all of them converging on the great cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

During the Middle Ages, the Camino was often undertaken as a form of penance, a way to expiate some sin. Today the pilgrimage mostly attracts tourists, though there is no shortage of those whose motivation is religious or spiritual. My motivation was, I suppose, curiosity. I had never walked a long distance on foot, I had never stayed in a hostel, and I had never been to Santiago (or Galicia, for that matter). This is not to mention that friends, acquaintances, and strangers all recommended the experience. But since neither GF nor I had a lot of time—not to mention, we weren’t sure we were up to it—we couldn’t dream of doing the whole 30 day trek from France. So we took a week off and decided to spend five days on camino, five days experiencing the pilgrimage. We bought boots and backpacks, and booked our Blablacar to our starting point: Lugo.

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Arrival: Lugo

We arrived in the afternoon, and I was feeling nervous. I am by nature a nervous fellow, often for no good reason; but that day I felt nervous for what I thought was a legitimate cause: we didn’t have any reservations for a place to stay. This was because, as GF informed me, we could just go to the local albergue (pilgrim’s hostel) and sleep there. But we discovered on the ride up to Lugo that, this very weekend, the city was hosting its popular Roman festival. The town would be packed with visitors. This made me fear that, due to the influx of tourists, the albergue would be totally full. By the time we arrived, I had convinced myself that we’d have to sleep on the street.

In the hopes of avoiding this fate, I was desperately trying to get us to the albergue as quickly as possible, since the beds are always given on a first-come, first-served basis. But to get a bed, first we had to get our pilgrim’s passports. This is a little booklet that allows you to use the pilgrim’s hostels, not to mention to get your certificate of completion when you get to Santiago. It is full of blank pages, which you are supposed to get stamped in the places you stay at and pass through, as a way of proving that you did the camino.

Where you get the passport depends on what town you’re in. We found out from the local tourist office that we had to go to the cathedral. There, a man sold us each a passport for the very reasonable sum of 2€, and then stamped it with the logo of the Lugo Cathedral. From there we rushed to the albergue and found that, contrary to my worries, they had plenty of spots. We got our passports duly stamped at the front desk, paid 6€ apiece—a typical price at the public albergues—and went upstairs to the sleeping area.

It was a Spartan room, with white walls and aluminum bunkbeds. The receptionist had given us both a plastic package at the front desk, which I discovered to be a thin, tissue-like covering for the mattress and pillow, I suppose for hygiene. I put these on the bed, and then had a look around the place. The sleeping area must have had space for at least 20 people, yet the bathroom only had one shower; and the shower had no door or screen, which for me was very distressing, since I like my privacy.

Besides that, the place was lacking one more crucial thing: blankets. A quick look around told me that most of the other pilgrims were smart enough to have brought sleeping bags. Us two, we didn’t have anything. But what could we do now? Just hope it didn’t get too cold.

We had until 10pm to explore the city. If we weren’t back at the albergue by then, we’d be locked out for the night. (This sort of thing is typical of albergues.) But this was more than enough time to see Lugo.

Both of us were very hungry by now. Luckily, because of the Roman festival, the city center was full of little stands selling food. The vendors at these stands were, as befitting a Roman festival, dressed in togas; and the labels for the food were written in Latin. We ordered empanadas gallegas, which are a kind of flat empanada typical of Galicia, cut into triangular slices like a pizza. (By the way, did you know that empanadas originated in Portugal and Galicia?) I had the “pullum” (chicken).

When we were done eating, we took some time to explore the festival. The entire town was a scene of buzzing activities. In one square, wooden walls were built, creating a little fortress; and in front were catapults, trebuchets, and other siege weapons—all life-sized copies, if somewhat crudely made. Young men and women swaggered around in togas, tunics, capes, and armor, some of them holding fake swords. Others were dressed like barbarians, wearing fur cloaks and wielding spears. A marching band passed through, dressed in impressively realistic centurion costumes.

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Little stands were everywhere, selling ribbons and garlands of flowers, scented candles and jars of honey, dried meats and cheeses, wooden mortars and pestles, silk tunics and leather-bound notebooks, plastic helmets and toy bows and arrows, fake swords and brightly painted shields. Some people walked around, dragging dozens of floating, cartoon-themed balloons, while firefighters stood on the periphery in case of emergency. It was a lovely sight.

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After enjoying the festival, we went back to the cathedral to get a better look. I do not remember the cathedral in enough detail to give a proper description, but I will add that it is a really beautiful place, both inside and out. The exterior has a balance and elegance typical of the Renaissance. Since the day was cloudy and overcast, the inside was quite dark. Thus the cathedral had that gloomy, mystical ambience I so enjoy in Spanish churches—the shadowy space only illuminated by the gleam of light reflecting off the gold altar-piece. There is, for me, something especially profound about Spanish Catholicism, and the Lugo Cathedral exemplified it perfectly. I was quite impressed.

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Next we had a real treat: the Roman walls. Lugo is, in fact, the only city in the world still surrounded by fully intact Roman walls. Undoubtedly the walls have been repaired many times over the centuries; indeed, sections were being repaired that very day. Nevertheless, the walls are original, and they encircle the entire old section of Lugo. These walls are made of thin slabs of granite (which are ubiquitous in Galicia), and reach a height of 10 to 15 meters (about 30 to 50 feet), according to Wikipedia. They are free to visit, and have many staircases and ramps to get on or off.

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We got on and started walking. I didn’t appreciate how tall and thick the walls were until we got to the top. I wonder why the Romans built them this way, for they seemed unnecessarily big to me. It’s difficult for me to imagine any of the local “barbarian” tribes posing such a serious threat to the Roman military that these robust defenses would be necessary. The walls are too tall to climb, too strong to knock down. Even a modern day truck going at full speed wouldn’t be enough to break through; so what hope did the barbarians have? I suppose that fortifications like these have a psychological as well as a military purpose, demonstrating Roman might. And I also suppose that “better safe than sorry” is a principle that the Romans must have followed too.

The circumference of the walls is more than two kilometers. We did not want to wear ourselves out before the camino even began, so we walked about half that before getting off. After this, there isn’t much to tell. We went to a supermarket to get some food, spent some time relaxing at the albergue, and went to sleep early.

Or at least, I tried to go to sleep. Laying down without a blanket, in a room full of 20 other people, some of them snoring, others whispering, others staring at the ceiling, made me feel uncomfortably exposed. I could see everyone and they could see me. Lying there, so obviously unprepared, I couldn’t help feeling like a fool. It took me about two hours to finally get to sleep; and I was woken up two hours later, shivering all over from the cold. I lay there awake for some time, vainly wrapping myself in my little towel for warmth, too sleepy to think or to feel anything in particular. Then finally my body adapted to the cold and I drifted off once again, but not for long.

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Day 1: Lugo to Ponte Ferreira

We woke at six in the morning.

Waking up early had been recommended to us, since, as I said before, the beds in the albergues as given on a first-come, first-served basis; and the idea of walking five hours and then not being to find a bed sent shivers of terror down my spine. I was determined not to let that happen.

The walk did not start smoothly. We attempted to follow the signs for the camino, but quickly got lost. After some panicked walking about, GF looked up the proper route on her phone and we got ourselves on track. The morning was cool, grey, and misty. It was the time of day that seems suspended halfway between dream and reality, when everyone is asleep, when the town is silent and empty, and when the world is covered in a shroud of fog.

Or it would have seemed like this, had not Lugo been full of bedraggled partygoers. The Spanish are really intense: even in this little town, dozens and dozens of people stayed out partying until six in the morning. As GF and I walked along in our boots and backpacks, groups of half-drunk and half-asleep young people—their togas in disarray and their tiaras sitting sideways on their heads—slowly made their way to their beds. It was quite a sight.

Soon we were out of the town, following the path. It was really exciting at first; it felt like a scavenger hunt, following each clue to find a prize. The signs for the camino are shaped like scallop shells, and are usually placed on concrete platforms along the roadway, although sometimes the signs are stuck into the sides of buildings.

The scallop shell, by the way, is one of the most important symbols of the camino. The shape of the shell itself is a wonderful representation of the voyage, with all the lines of the shell converging on a single point, just as all the pilgrimage routes converge on Santiago. Also, the way that scallop shells get swept up by the waves and deposited on the beach is symbolic of pilgrims getting swept up on the camino and deposited in Santiago. It is not known for sure why the scallop shell was adopted as the symbol of the camino. There are various legends surrounding the origins, but the most likely explanation seems to be that pilgrims just wanted a souvenir to take back, and scallop shells made nice keepsakes.

That first morning, the scallop-shell signs directed us on a grassy path surrounded on both sides by granite walls. Then we were led down a staircase under a bridge, across a river, and away we went on a road into the countryside of Galicia. I was still feeling anxious. The idea of spending every night in a place with public showers and no blankets didn’t sit well with me. I imagined myself by the end of the experience, dirty, stinky, and beside myself with sleep-deprivation. But I did my best to put away these thoughts and appreciate the walk.

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It was extremely charming, being led on and on by the scallop shells. The morning was still young, and the temperature was perfect: cool, misty, with a slight breeze.

It wasn’t long until we had left the suburbs and had entered the countryside of Galicia. Here I soon noticed that the province of Galicia is quite distinct from the rest of Spain. For one, it is green. Madrid is dry and up in the mountains, so the soil is sandy and the trees are sparse and scrawny. But Galicia is fairly flat and very rainy, so is covered in thick, lush vegetation. For me, this was wonderful, since one of the things I miss the most about New York is the trees and forests—the ability to get lost in the woods, with the sky covered by the canopy overhead and the tree trunks closing in around you. Thus Galicia didn’t feel foreign to me, but made me feel right at home.

Also distinct is the architecture of Galicia, which relies on their copious supplies of granite. They use granite for everything: for houses, barns, fences, statues, bridges, walls, and roofs. The way that towns are distributed in Galicia is also striking: instead of being widely spaced, with big stretches of emptiness between them, as is common in the rest of Spain, the towns are lightly spread throughout the province, with a few farms here, a few cottages there, and not many big areas of emptiness.

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A typical Galician crucifix

The Galicians also have two signature architectural works. First are the big stone crucifixes that they like to put outside their churches. Second are the hórreos, which are raised food storage containers used to keep out rats and other vermin. They are typically built on large platforms, with a barrier on the bottom so that no rodent could climb up. The upper structure is usually made with a granite frame and wooden walls, often with a crucifix on top.

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An hórreo made of brick

At the time, however, GF and I didn’t know this, so we spent many hours trying to figure out what the things were. Because of the crucifix, at first we thought they were family tombs. But then we noticed that we could see through the cracks in the wooden boards, and there was nothing inside. (Nowadays people just use refrigerators to store their food.) I was wondering if it had some sort of religious significance, like a family shrine; and GF thought it might be used to keep animals. Well, to any who are reading this blog, now you have been spared our confusion.

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The route alternated between country roads and forest paths. The latter were certainly preferable, not only because of the more scenic surroundings, but because it felt more comfortable to walk on dirt than asphalt. That being said, the dirt trails were occasionally muddy, at times impassably so; and the first day I managed to get my pants absolutely covered in dirt. A word to the wise: don’t wear white trousers on your camino.

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I expected to do a lot of thinking and talking on the camino, but for the most part we went along in a thoughtless silence. Most of the time I simply got lost in the scenery, observing the Galician countryside. We walked through little villages, many just a dozen houses along the road. Dogs were everywhere, barking and sniffing at us as we passed. Now and then we’d go by a farmer, engaged in some day to day task: sitting on their tractor, rummaging around in their shed, escorting their cows out to pasture, switch in hand, whipping and yelling to keep the animals moving. Sometimes the scenery would bore me with its tedious repetitiousness, but then a snatch of singular beauty would shock me out of my weariness: a glance of cows sunbathing through the trees, a granite church by the roadside, a trail lined with purple flowers.

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Of course, there was some pain involved. For one, we were sleep-deprived and hungry. We ate a light breakfast early in the morning, and didn’t eat lunch until around 3:00 pm. The only thing that kept us going was a package of mixed nuts that GF had wisely brought along. Thankfully, the path was usually flat, so we didn’t feel exhausted by the walking. But it wasn’t long before our feet began to get sore and our bulky backpacks pressed painfully on our shoulders.

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In general, the early mornings were easiest, since we were refreshed from sleep; then, after an hour, we’d begin to get tired; eventually we’d get our second wind, as we got into the rhythm of walking; and then a more complete exhaustion would begin to take hold around noon.

This first day was the hardest. We walked about 25 kilometers, which took seven hours. We arrived hungry, exhausted, tired, sore, and covered in dirt and sweat. All I wanted was a shower and a warm place to sleep; and I was doubtful about getting either of these. But we were in luck. This time, we stayed at a private albergue. This meant that the prices were higher—10 euros instead of 6—but it also meant they had warm blankets and individual showers.

We were actually the first to arrive at the albergue, beating everyone else from Lugo. I was so nervous about not getting a bed, I didn’t allow us to take any breaks or to let up the pace. I don’t recommend this: the camino isn’t a race. Take my advice, and don’t obsess about not getting a place to stay, since it can interfere with your ability to relax and enjoy the experience.

We took our boots off our stinky and sore feet, took long showers, changed into our pajamas, and washed our dirty clothes. We had sandwiches for lunch, and then spent time relaxing in bed, reading and napping. At night we had a communal dinner with the other pilgrims, which I recommend. None of them spoke English, giving us a good opportunity to practice our Spanish. We ate seafood paella and complained about Donald Trump—a perfect dinner, if you asked me.

Then we went to bed, tired and satisfied, ready for our next leg of the journey.

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Day 2: Ponte Ferreira to Melide

The next day we woke up at 6, had a communal breakfast, and hit the road.

Again, the landscape was shrouded in mist. A wonderful silence permeated the countryside. The sun was hidden behind the clouds, a cool breeze gently blew, and our voices and footsteps seemed muffled in that heavy air. The dim light and the grey fog turned everything the same liquid color and blurred the boundaries between earth and sky. Gradually the fog receded and clear sunlight poured in from above, making every leaf and flower glow with their proper shade, reestablishing the normal shapes of things.

In addition to being very bright, the sun also has the unfortunately quality of being remarkably hot. I certainly felt this was we walked on into the daylight hours, the sun beating down upon my neck. My back and shoulders were absolutely soaked in sweat, since my backpack prevented any ventilation. The water in our bottles got unpleasantly warm, and soon there wasn’t much water left.

We walked through a pocket of farmland, passing field after field, until we found ourselves in a hilly stretch of open land. On the hilltops were dozens, if not hundreds, of wind turbines spinning away. The path kept leading us closer to them, allowing me to get a better look. I enjoyed this, since I find wind turbines to be really beautiful. They look modern, even space-age with their sleek white form; and yet they blend in so peacefully with the landscape. To me, the view represents the future harmony of humans with their environment, using both technology and taste to achieve a sustainable relationship.

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Our path began to take us up one of these hills, disclosing a progressively more expansive view of the countryside around us. Soon both of us were gaping and sputtering—“Wow, wow, it’s so nice!”—and stopping every twenty feet to take more photos and to take it all in.

A little bit after one o’ clock, we reached our destination: Melide. This is a town with a population of about 9,000, which is actually quite large for the area. We found an albergue—with blankets!—and made ourselves at home. Already present was a Canadian woman, holding an ice pack to her leg. She was extremely talkative, and soon we learned that her son had bought her a ticket to Europe as a Christmas present, so they could walk the camino together; but about a week’s walk from the final point she hurt her knee. Also present were a couple women from Puerto Rico, one a makeup artist and one a painter. We made small talk for a while until, compelled by hunger, GF and I went out to get some food.

Melide is most well known for its pulpo (octopus), so we went to the town’s most well-regarded pulpería: A Garnacha. It’s a big place with long, wooden benches and a busy wait staff. GF and I ordered some potatoes, pimientos, and octopus. It was all delicious. Most distinctive was the strong, spicy paprika they put on everything.

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An elderly Galician couple sat next to us. I was trying to decide what to drink, so when I noticed the waiter bring them a small pitcher of wine, I asked:

“Sorry, what kind of wine is that?”

“This? This is Ribeiro. It’s good, I recommend it,” the man said.

“Oh, thanks.”

I ordered some when the waiter came by again, and quickly got a chance to taste it myself.

“Wow, it’s very good,” I said.

“Isn’t it? It’s the local specialty.”

“It tastes very young, very fruity.”

“Yes, they don’t age the wine in barrels, but bottle it immediately. That’s how we like it.”

“Well, cheers!” I said, and we all clinked our glasses and returned to our meals.

After we finished eating, the man leaned over and said:

“Would you like a coffee? We invite you.” (This means he’ll pay.)

“Really? Sure we would.”

“So are you both pilgrims?”

“Yes, we walked five hours today.”

“Where did you start?”

“In Lugo, not too far away.”

“Ah, well, that’s still good. And where are you from?”

“New York, but we live in Madrid.”

“Really? What do you do there?”

“English teachers.”

“That’s lovely. I’m a Spanish teacher, myself.”

“Yeah?”

“I work for an NGO here, teaching immigrants how to speak.”

So the conversation went, exchanging pleasantries and making small talk. He told us more about the local cuisine and gave us recommendations for places to see in Santiago. After coffee, the man had me try a couple of the local liquors. By the time I left, I had downed two shots in addition to the wine, making me a bit tipsy. It wasn’t long before we had finished talking and parted ways; but this short conversation is one of my favorite memories from the camino. It felt wonderful to have two local people welcome us like that.

The rest of the evening we spent resting and chatting with the Canadians and the Puerto Ricans. Soon we were off to sleep, ready for our next day.

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A sign with information on albergues, written in Gallego, the language of Galicia

Day 3: Melide to Arzúa

We awoke to another cool, misty morning.

By now, the walking had already begun to take a toll on us. I felt achy and apathetic. GF felt energetic enough, but her feet were beginning to blister. One of the Canadians told her that Vaseline would help, and even gave her some to put on; but even so treated, her feet felt sore and sensitive.

The trails were much more crowded now. Our route was linking up with the more popular Camino Francés, so we were seldom alone. This did ruin some of the romance of the walk, since it didn’t feel as adventurous with so many other people around. The compensating pleasure was to see all the types of people that the Camino attracts.

There were Spaniards, Americans, Brits, Germans, Chinese, Portuguese, and Italians—not to mention the Puerto Ricans and Canadians. I saw a husband and wife with two young kids, pushing them along in a sports stroller. I briefly met a man from Manchester, who was walking the camino at the impressive age of 83. There were couples, groups of friends, and loners. At a café, I spent some time talking to a father and daughter who had walked all the way from France. And several times we passed a young, hippy couple who were walking along with a donkey, pitching a tent by the side of the road. There were many bicyclists, too, who would often zoom by in their brightly-colored, form-fitting outfits, yelling “Buen Camino!” as they passed. No matter what country you come from, what language you speak, that’s what you say to another pilgrim when you pass on the road: Buen Camino!

Seeing such a variety of people made me think of a section in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. During his pilgrimage to Mecca, as part of the Hajj, Malcolm X saw people of all different races interacting as brothers and sisters; and this experience inspired him to change his pessimistic views about the coexistence of races.

This, I think, is one of the lessons of any pilgrimage. When you’re on the road, with only some clothes on your back and only your feet to push you forward, all the differences that normally loom so large—race, age, nationality, gender, and even religion—become insignificant. Everyone is equal on a pilgrimage. Everyone eats the same food, sleeps in the same beds, and walks the same road. Everyone has the same needs and the same struggles. And not only are you equals, but you are allies; your destination binds you together with common purpose. If only we could treat life more like a pilgrimage—help each other up when we fall, cheer each other on instead of envying success, and feeling our common humanity rather than our petty differences.

We arrived in Arzúa in just about four hours—quite an easy walk. Arzúa is a small town of about 6,000, mostly situated along a central highway.

We got ourselves set up in a nice albergue, and went out to lunch at the town’s best restaurant, Casa Teodora. Though it had very good reviews online, neither of us were expecting much from a restaurant in such a small town. But we were pleasantly surprised. The food was generously portioned, and absolutely scrumptious. I particularly remember the caldo gallego, or Galician soup, a simple but delicious dish of potatoes and cabbage. We left thoroughly full (and in my case inebriated, because they included a bottle of wine), and soon passed out in our albergue. By dinner time, we were still so stuffed that we decided just to nibble on some snacks from the local grocery store. If you find yourself in Arzúa, make sure to eat at Casa Teodora.

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Day 4: Arzúa to Pedrouzo

As I write this, my memories of our days of walking are a blur of green countryside, foresty trails, bucolic farmland, and the constant weight of my backpack pressing down upon me. Misty mornings and bright afternoons, sore feet and achy hips, the smell of dew and cow manure, the taste of mixed nuts and chocolate biscuits, the sound of chirping birds and the occasional “Buen camino!”, and always the endless road ahead—all this forms the fabric of my recollections.

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Only a few impressions stick out from this day. I remember that some people had taken it upon themselves to print out quotes of famous philosophers on orange and yellow sheets of paper, and to tape them onto the sides of garbage cans along the way. We ran into these in many different areas, which really amused me. The prank crescendoed in a so-called “Wall of Wisdom,” which was a granite wall that had been covered in hundreds of these quotes. Unfortunately I didn’t bother to take a photo, and I can’t remember any quote in particular; but I respected the dedication of the authors and their aim of spreading wisdom to pilgrims. My only other distinct memory is of a wall next to a bar that had hundreds of empty beer bottles sitting on it. Looks like some people had a good time.

Our original plan was to stop in a small town called A Rúa, but we arrived there so early and felt so energetic that we went on to the next town, O Pedrouzo. This turned out to be a good choice, because the town was bigger and had a better selection of places to eat. Yet even though we walked farther than originally planned, we arrived before noon, when the albergue wasn’t even open. We passed the time sitting in a café, wasting time on our phones.

By chance, I found myself reading an article about travel and classism.

“Yo, I just read this article someone posted on Facebook,” I said to GF, after finishing.

“Oh yeah?” GF said, without looking up from her phone.

“Yeah, it’s about travel and privilege.”

GF gave a polite grunt.

“I’ve actually been thinking about this,” I went on. “We have this whole culture of touting travel as soul-expanding and so forth, but the author argues that this is just a form of classism.”

GF looked up, slightly more interested.

“For example, you take all these photos of cool places, you eat in all these expensive restaurants, and you interact mainly with people working in the travel industry—you know, people who speak English and you are paid to accommodate your needs. Then you go back and talk about how enriching travel is. Isn’t that just a way of flouting your privilege?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” GF said. “But, for example, I feel like we don’t do that. We interact with a lot of locals and don’t spend that much money.”

“That’s true. Although even to be here, we had to save up for a while, and probably we couldn’t have done that unless we had parents who let us live with them.”

“Yeah, I guess,” GF said. “But it still doesn’t seem right to put down traveling because it costs money.”

“I agree. I think that’s the problem with this article. To do something that requires money isn’t necessarily classist. And even if it is a sign of privilege, that doesn’t mean it isn’t good for you.”

“Word.”

I thought for a moment. GF went back to her phone.

“Though, to be fair,” I finally said, “probably most of this talk about travel is just self-aggrandizing. When people do things that genuinely make them a better person, usually they don’t immediately brag about it.”

“Eh, I don’t know about that,” GF said. “Doesn’t everybody want to look good in front of others?”

“Yeah, I think so,” I said. “But I still think that people often confuse the urge to look good with actually improving themselves.”

“Probably,” GF said. I could tell she was losing interest in the conversation.

Thankfully, it was soon time to go to the albergue. We were the first to arrive. The receptionist hadn’t even started working yet; the cleaning lady had just unlocked the door and started tidying up the place. She let us leave our stuff there, even though she wasn’t authorized to accept our money. So after staking out two beds in the enormous room, we walked into town, bought some snacks at the supermarket, and sat on a park bench.

There isn’t much else to tell about this day, except for something I overheard at dinner. GF and I went to a pizza shop and sat down. The only other people there were a middle-aged Australian couple who had finished eating and were polishing off their beers. I tried not to eavesdrop, but my ears perked up when I heard the woman mention that she had just finished reading a book about the camino. I strained to catch the title of the book, since I wanted to read a book about the camino myself. Unfortunately, I missed it. By the time I started paying attention, she was saying:

“Yeah, and you know, one of the things he says that struck me as so true, was this. The biggest lesson that the camino teaches is to pack light.”

The guy chuckled.

“That’s it?” he said. “Not very profound, I don’t think.”

“No, no, but it is,” she said. “When people start the camino, they think they need to bring all this fancy stuff. But it just slows them down and makes them tired. So they learn exactly what they need, and what they can do away with.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“But also, that’s an important lesson for life, isn’t it? You really don’t need that much. And most people load themselves down with all sorts of things that just slow them down in the long run. You can just chuck it in the trash. You really need very little to be happy.”

“Alright,” the guy said. “I’ll cheers to that.” And the two of them finished their beers.

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Day 5: O Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela

I woke up excited. This was it: the final leg of the journey, the last day on the road, the culmination of all those miles. Barring any unforeseen disasters, by that afternoon I would be standing underneath the iconic spires of the Santiago Cathedral.

There was no mist that morning, just blue sky and sun. We quickly located the camino and began walking. Soon we were out of the town, on a forest trail. The trees curved up all around us, their branches sweeping in protective arches. For me, there is a curious mix of the static and the dynamic about trees; they seem like petrified bodies, twisting and turning as if in motion, and yet curiously still.

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Soon we were running into other pilgrims; we passed some, and others passed us. A few faces were familiar, but most were strangers. We smiled regardless. But about an hour into the walk, we ran into some friends: the two women from Puerto Rico. They were walking along with a man from Andalusia. GF and I decided to join them. The Andalusian was a nice fellow—though unfortunately I had a lot of trouble understanding him. No matter how good my Spanish gets, that accent defeats me every time.

This difficulty was alleviated when, a few minutes later, the man decided to stop off at a café for something to eat. This left just us and the Puerto Ricans. I think both GF and I were craving some additional company, so we decided to stick with our friends. Walking along, we talked about everything and nothing—the roving, scatterbrained, inconsequential small talk of strangers on a long journey. They taught us Spanish and told us something about their lives. We chatted about the local food, made banal observations about our surroundings, and told each other stories of other places we visited.

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The hours passed swiftly as we walked. Soon we were within an hour of our destination. The Andalusian man caught up with us while we tarried at a café, and thus we began our final approach with five people. We stopped for a final rest near the Monte de Gozo, or the Hill of Joy, an elevation overlooking Santiago de Compostela. On top is a funny, modern sculpture with two metal loops and a crucifix on top. There was also small church nearby, where GF and I stamped our pilgrim’s passports. One of the Puerto Ricans offered me a fig, which I gladly accepted. It was sugary, gooey, syrupy, and scrumptious. I made a mental note to eat more figs.

Soon we were off again. We climbed down the hill, crossed a bridge over a highway, and soon began the seemingly endless walk through the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela towards the center. Slowly but steadily, we neared the heart of the city. The buildings grew bigger, the streets more crowded. Eventually I realized that the city was beginning to look medieval, with the characteristic narrow, winding streets. We passed an imposing stone church, and then a granite fountain with the bust of a man in a frilly collar. Then we found ourselves walking past a large, impressive building with the frieze of the royal insignia sculpted on the front.

“What’s that?” GF said.

“Maybe it’s a university,” I said.

“Or a convent?” said one of the Puerto Ricans.

“It’s a monastery,” said a man nearby. He was wearing long dreadlocks but no shirt.

“Oh, thanks,” I said.

“Didn’t want you guys not to know,” he said, and then shrugged.

We passed through a small tunnel. Inside was a man playing the bag pipe, a traditional instrument in Galicia. I wanted to enjoy it, but the hollering ricocheted off the walls until it became truly abrasive to listen to. But soon we were out in the open air again, this time in the Plaza del Obradoiro.

We had arrived. In the middle of the large, square plaza, lots of pilgrims were laying down on the ground, their backpacks still on their backs. Other pilgrims were taking turns posing for pictures in front of the cathedral, their walking sticks held high in the air. Merchants were selling scallop shells, others were going around advertising hostels; but most people were just smiling and enjoying the moment. The pilgrimage was over. This was it.

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To our left was the famous Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, a pilgrim hostel established by Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand five hundred years ago. (Nowadays it’s way too expensive for folks like me.) Behind us was the Town Hall of Santiago, with a sculpture of Santiago himself on horseback gracing the top. And in front was the Santiago Cathedral, with its crisscrossing front staircase and two Romanesque towers. Unfortunately, the moment was not quite as picturesque as it could have been, since more than half of the cathedral’s façade was covered with scaffolding for repair work. But, damn it, we made it!

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Coming to the end of any journey is always bittersweet. For five days and more, the Santiago Cathedral seemed impossibly distant. There were even times before our trip that I thought I’d never see the cathedral for myself. After all, when was I ever going to find the time and energy to hike on some old pilgrimage trail in the north of Spain? And now, here I was, seeing the thing with my very eyes. I felt fantastic, but also a bit sad. Now I had nothing to be excited about.

Indeed, it was a really bittersweet moment for me. I knew that this was the last big trip in Spain I would take with GF, since she had to go back for graduate school. At least I could say that we had a fitting end to our adventurous year, ending our travels in the most symbolic destination in the country: Santiago de Compostela. We had spent only five days walking; but we had spent eight months traveling. We had seen and done so many things since we arrived. We had tried so many foods, visited so many churches, walked so many miles. We had met so many people, had so many conversations (many in Spanish!), traveled in so many cars, buses, trains, and planes. And were we any different? Or was this all just an exercise in conspicuous consumption? Were we flaunting our privilege, or did we grow?

These questions flashed through my mind, and then I let them go. We said goodbye to our friends and went to our Airbnb. Soon we had put our backpacks down and were lounging on the bed. My back, my hips, my knees, my feet—everything was sore. I was sad to finish, but also pretty happy I didn’t have to carry that backpack anymore.

There was only one more thing we had to do for our trip to be complete. After we rested for a while, we headed back towards the city center. We were going to the Pilgrim’s Reception Office to get our Compostelas—the official document showing that you completed your camino. The office is on Rúa Carretas, 33, about a five minute’s walk from the cathedral.

To get in, we had to show a security guard our pilgrim’s passports. He took some time to look them over. I’m not sure what he was checking, but I believe he was making sure that we walked at least 100 kilometers. Lugo is almost exactly 100 kilometers from Santiago, which is why we chose it. I also think he was making sure we had stamps from albergues along the way. You see, the stamps aren’t just for fun; they are to make sure you don’t just take a bus. Granted, it still wouldn’t be too difficult to fake it, but honestly who would want to do that?

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Soon the security guard let us inside. We turned a corner and found ourselves in a queue. I was afraid that we’d have to wait for a long time, since our Spanish professor said that it can take hours. But there were only about ten people ahead of us, and the line moved fast. As in a government office, a monitor over the door displayed the number of an available desk.

Soon it was my turn. I walked up, said hello, and the woman handed me a short form to fill out with basic information. One of the questions was whether I completed the camino for reasons of sport, tourism, spirituality, or religion. The truth is, probably tourism would have been the most honest answer. But a friend of ours advised us that the certificate they give to tourists is far uglier than the one they give to spiritual or religious pilgrims; so with some misgivings, I put down spirituality. In an instant she handed me my certificate.

It was marvelous. The whole thing was written in Latin—they even translated my name! A medieval image of Santiago sat atop the upper right corner; and across the left side was a charming, floral motif. I loved it. Soon the certificate was safely stowed away in a little tube they sold me for two euros, and we were out on the street again. We had officially, certifiably, formally walked the camino. We even had receipts to prove it.

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Review: Feeling Good

Review: Feeling Good

Feeling Good: The New Mood TherapyFeeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you can love and respect yourself in failure, worlds of adventure and new experiences will open up before you, and your fears will vanish.

It is an interesting statement on contemporary culture that practical, self-help books are often looked down on as lowbrow, unsophisticated, and unworthy of serious consideration. Just note how often in reviews of self-help books you come across the phrase, “I don’t normally read books like this,” or the like. Of course, skepticism regarding books of this kind is merited, especially when you take into account the amount of quackery, chicanery, demagoguery, and baloney in print. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say we have a veritable advice industry in our culture today, with a great deal of money to be made and thus lots of enterprising, unscrupulous people peddling various forms of nonsense, hoping to get rich. Self-help books now sell so well that they have to be excluded from non-fiction sales rankings, because if they weren’t the top 10 best sellers would be an endless parade of one self-help book after another.

But why are so many people willing to pay for and devour book after book, getting swept about by the ceaseless winds of doctrine, navigating their lives through fad after fad? Fashionable ways of running and ruining your life have always been with us; yet I think there is another aggravating factor at work in the present day.

Recently I read two history books, one about Ancient Greece and the other about Rome. As I learned about the philosophies of education in those societies, I noticed how central were the ideas of ethical and moral teaching. I don’t mean ethical in the narrow sense of right and wrong, but in the wider Greek sense, used by Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Epicureans—how to cultivate wisdom, how to live a well-regulated life, how to deal with the hardships and misfortunes that are so often thrown our way. These were primary concerns of pedagogy. By contrast, our current education system, as least here in the States, has deemphasized ethical teaching almost completely.

There are, of course, many reasons for this, and many of them are good ones; but I do think it leaves a certain gap in our culture that self-help books partially fill. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, many of these seem rather mediocre—or worse. But this book, by David D. Burns, is for me one of the exceptions. It is an interesting and, for me, an extremely useful book, based on a well-studied and much-tested therapeutic technique.

Burns’s aim in writing this book was to popularize the methods of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a therapeutic technique developed by the psychologist Aaron T. Beck, among others. The premise of CBT is very simple: your moods are caused by your thoughts, so by controlling your thoughts you can control your moods. At first sight, this may seem like complete nonsense; our moods come and go, and our thoughts simply take on the timbre of whatever mood we happened to be in, right? This seems to be what most people assume; certainly I did. Yet consider this scenario, which actually happened to me:

My boss scheduled a meeting with me out of the blue. I immediately started thinking that I hadn’t been doing a good job recently, so I began to panic, sure I was about to get fired. Eventually, this panic turned to indignation, as I convinced myself of the injustice of the situation, since I worked hard and tried my best. So, literally trembling with anxiety and outrage, I went to the meeting and sat down; and my boss said: “We’re giving you a bonus, because you’ve been doing so well. Congratulations!” Suddenly, all my negative feelings turned into joy.

This I think well illustrates the central idea behind CPT. All of my negative and positive emotions in this scenario were due to my interpretation of the event, not the event itself. I made the false assumption, based on no evidence, that I was going to be fired. I thought of every mistake and imperfection in my work over the last month or so, and convinced myself that I was doing poorly and that termination was imminent. Then, I persuaded myself that I wasn’t given adequate resources or support, and that the situation was unjust. And when I was finally given the bonus, I interpreted that to mean I was doing a good job and that I was getting all the support I needed—which were equally tenuous interpretations. Thus you can see how my mood was a direct product of my thoughts.

All of my negative assumption in the above paragraph contain what Burns calls “warped thoughts,” or cognitive distortions. These are irrational patterns of thinking which have been found to be common in depressed and overly anxious patients. The CBT interpretation of depression is that these thinking patterns are not caused by depression, but actually cause depression. In other words, depression results from persistent, unrealistic negative interpretations of one’s life and experience, leading one to focus solely on the bad and to feel hopeless about the future.

Burns gives a list of 10 types of warped thoughts, but in my opinion there is quite a bit of overlap in the categories. The distortions more or less boil down to the following:

—Making negative assumptions, whether about the future or about what someone else is thinking;
—Assuming that one’s emotions accurately reflect reality;
—Over-generalizing a small number of negative occurrences into an inevitable trend;
—Willfully ignoring all of the positives to focus solely on the negative;
—Thinking in black and white categories;
—Making unjustified “should” or “ought” statements about the world without considering other people’s perspectives;
—Feeling that you are responsible for things over which you have no control;
—Labeling oneself and others with vague pejoratives.

The first part of this book is dedicated to allowing the reader to recognize these types of thoughts and to combat them. This most often is just a matter of writing these thoughts down and exposing the distortions that lay beneath. Simple as this sounds, I’ve found this to be remarkably effective. As you might have guessed from the above example, I am rather prone to anxiety; and during this summer, my anxiety was getting to the point that I felt incapacitated. I was driving my friends and family nuts with my constant worrying; and nobody, including myself, knew how to deal with me.

Luckily, I heard about a site called MoodGYM, which is a website developed by the Australian National University for people dealing with anxiety and depression, using the techniques of CBT. Desperate for some relief, I completed the reading and activities on the website, and found that I felt much, much better. Impressed, I looked for books on CBT techniques, and of course came across this one.

What most intrigued me about CBT was the emphasis on accuracy. The techniques weren’t based on the premise that I was somehow damaged or filled with strange desires, nor did they include any amount of self-delusion or wishful thinking. Quite the reverse: the whole emphasis was on thinking clearly, basing beliefs on evidence, avoiding unreasonable assumptions, and seeing things from multiple points of view.

Take anger. Very often (though not always), our feelings of indignation simply result from seeing an event through a narrowly selfish lens. We don’t get the job we interviewed for, and we feel cheated; someone beat us to that parking spot, and we feel outraged. But when we consider these scenarios from the perspective of the boss or the other driver, the situation suddenly seems much more just and fair; they are pursuing their own interests, just like we are. So simply by looking at the situation from multiple points of view, and thus understanding it more fully, our feelings of anger are cooled.

When I began working through the techniques in the book, I was astounded by how often these types of distortions plagued my thinking. It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so unpleasant: I could twist any situation or piece of information into somehow reflecting negatively on my character. Everything bad in the world confirmed my negativity, and everything good only served to reproach me and to make me envious and resentful. The good news was that, when I began to recognize these illogical patterns of thought, it was extremely easy for me to correct them; and for the past month or so I’ve been feeling a great deal happier and calmer.

After teaching the reader several personal and interpersonal techniques—strategies for dealing with oneself and others more effectively—Burns moves on to examining some of the underlying assumptions that give rise to warped thinking. It turns out that these all involve equating one’s “value” or “worth” with some extrinsic good, whether it be approval, love, success, fame, or even skill. There is, of course, nothing wrong with enjoying the approval of others, the thrill of love, the sense of accomplishment, or the satisfaction of a job well done. The problem arises when, instead of enjoying something, we use it to measure ourselves.

To use a somewhat silly but germane example, how many people believe that those who read more books, bigger books, harder books, are somehow “superior” to people who don’t? I’ve certainly been guilty of this; but it is pretty clearly an absurd position when I think about it, and one that I couldn’t possibly defend on any valid moral or intellectual grounds. What on earth does it even mean to be a “superior” person?

Superiority only makes sense when we have some quality we can measure, such as wealth or strength; but when we say “superior” by itself, what quality do we mean? “Worth”? How do you measure that? You can try being clever and say “By the number of books you read” or something, but that’s clearly circular reasoning. If you are a humanist or religious, you might say that you have worth just from the fact of being alive; but then of course everyone is equally worthy and there’s no sense in feeling worthless.

In the non-Goodreads population, I suspect book addiction isn’t a big problem; more often, people feel down because they imagine that approval, love, money, or expertise is necessary to be a worthwhile and happy person. But the absurdity of this kind of thinking is revealed when you consider how many famous, beloved, rich, virtuosic, brilliant, successful people there have been, and still are, who are deeply depressed and feel worthless and hopeless. Short of torture, there are no circumstances in life that guarantee unhappiness; and the same goes for happiness. This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to change or improve your situation, only a reminder you that the way you interpret a situation is often as important as the situation itself, if not more so.

I cannot hope to sum up the entire book in the space of this review; but I hope what I have included has convinced you that it’s at least worth looking into. After all, by definition, nothing feels better than happiness.

Of course, the book isn’t perfect. Burns’s writing style is nothing remarkable, and it is occasionally tacky; but I think that it’s excusable considering that he’s a therapist, not a writer, and that he’s trying to reach a popular audience. One flaw that I thought was less easy to excuse was Burns’s exclusive focus on straight couples in his sections on love and relationships. Burns writes in a purely heteronormative vein, not even acknowledging same-sex couples, which is difficult to justify, considering the higher rates of depression and anxiety among gays and lesbians—not to mention others in the LGBTQ community. I hope this is changed in future additions.

A criticism I am tempted to make, but which I actually think is unfair, is that CBT makes people passive, accepting, and more content with the status quo. It sometimes seems as if Burns is telling people not to try to change their circumstances, but rather to accommodate themselves to them. I think this is unfair for a few reasons. No matter how powerful we may be, there will always be things in life which we cannot change and which we simply have to accept; so developing the tools to do so without frustration or anger is useful for everyone. What’s more, real depression and anxiety are not conducive to effective action. Quite the opposite: depression often makes people apathetic and anxiety makes people feel too overwhelmed to do anything. Besides, you can’t solve a problem unless you can see it clearly, and the thinking patterns associated with depression and anxiety lead to a total inability to see problems clearly and to deal with them rationally. So I think accusations that this book is somehow reactionary or that it leads to passivity are unfair.

To sum up this already overlong review, I just hope I’ve convinced you that this book might be extremely valuable to you or to someone you know. It certainly has been for me. Now I no longer feel that I am at the mercy of my moods or emotions, or that my sense of self-worth or confidence is dependent on my circumstances. And I’d say these benefits definitely outweigh the tacky cover and the corny title, don’t you?

(Oh, and if the book seems like too big a commitment, MoodGYM is pretty swell too, despite additional corniness of course.)

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The Upanishads

The Upanishads

The UpanishadsThe Upanishads by Anonymous
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I find it interesting how pervasive is the mystic idea of unity. From transcendentalists to scientists to Buddhists to Christians to Hindus, I hear this same thing emphasized repeatedly—everything is one. Physicists wax poetic about how our bodies are made of star-dust. Biologists and naturalists wonder at the unity of life on earth. Christians celebrate the infinite simplicity of God. Spinoza’s philosophy proclaims the oneness of all reality. Walt Whitman had this to say:

And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers… and the women my sisters and lovers

And here is Herman Hesse:

Slowly blossomed, slowly ripened in Siddhartha the realization, the knowledge, what wisdom actually was, what the goal of his long search was. It was nothing but a readiness of the soul, an ability, a secret art, to think every moment, while living his life, the thought of oneness, to be able to feel and inhale the oneness.

Opening yourself up to this realization is the corner-stone to many words of wisdom I’ve so far come across. When it is written in Ecclesiastes, “There is no new thing under the sun,” what else could this mean that reality is ever the same, that all change is superficial, that all is one?

Just so in The Upanishads, where it is written that “He who perceives all beings as the Self, how can there be delusion or grief for him, when he sees this oneness everywhere?”

This equating self with cosmos can also be found in Plato. In fact, the Socratic injunction to ‘know thyself’ takes on a different meaning in this context. Since, for Plato, the soul of a man is that which takes part in the realm of ideals, knowing this soul puts oneself in more intimate contact with this ultimate reality. So self-knowledge is the key to wisdom, and wisdom consists in the knowledge that all is one. To quote again from The Leaves of Grass, “I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

The parallels with Plato are actually astounding. In both Plato’s works and The Upanishads, the soul is likened to a driver on a chariot. Both systems divide the self or soul in similar ways. Both have an idea of reincarnation. And in both systems one finds the idea that true enlightenment comes from detached introspection.

I suspect that the intellectual knowledge that the universe is, in a sense, one thing, is not really what wisdom is all about. That we are made of materials created by exploding stars may be factually correct; but the statement’s emotional power does not come from that fact, but by what the fact implies—that you’re troubles and anxieties pale in comparison to the miracle of being alive in the universe. And truly, it is a miracle. I think scientists, Christians, Hindus, Platonists, and Buddhists can all agree with that.

To quote Bill Bryson’s fantastic A Short History of Nearly Everything:

To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence.

But Wittgenstein might have said it best: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.”

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Review: Language, Truth, and Logic

Review: Language, Truth, and Logic

Language, Truth, and LogicLanguage, Truth, and Logic by A.J. Ayer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

[SOCRATES is sitting in his living room on an easy chair, reading a newspaper. Suddenly, he hears a knock on the door, and gets up to answer it. Standing there is AYER, a skinny young man in a grey suit, with short-cropped hair. He is smiling and staring intently at SOCRATES.]

SOC: Hello? How may I help you?

AYER: Hello! My name is Alfred Jules Ayer, but most people call me Freddie. How are you today?

SOC: I’m fine, quite fine, thanks. Are you selling something? Because I’m afraid I am not interested…

AYER: Oh, no—no, no. I’m a member of the Vienna Circle, and I’m going door to door to promote our doctrine of logical positivism. It’s the amazing new doctrine that solves all philosophical problems now and for good. May I come in?

SOC: Really? Is that so? Yes, sure, come in. Sit down here on the couch.

[The two men sit down, SOC on his easy chair, and AYER on the couch.]

AYER: Thanks for letting me in! You’re the first one all week. Most people seem to think I’m a Mormon. [Looks around.] Nice place you got here. What do you do, if I may ask?

SOC: Oh, me? People think I’m a philosopher, but I just like to ask questions.

AYER: A philosopher? Neat! Well, then you’ll be real glad to hear what I have to say!

SOC: I don’t doubt it. So what’s this, um… logical positivism? Is it a religion?

AYER: A religion? Of course not! Logical positivism is the opposite of a religion! It’s a doctrine that tells us everything we ever want to know. If you learn about logical positivism, you’ll never be wrong again. Every problem you’ve ever asked about philosophy will be answered!

SOC: Wow, that sounds impressive… How does it work?

AYER: It’s simple! Here: let me demonstrate it by solving a philosophical problem. What’s something you want resolved?

SOC: Well, I’ve always been a bit puzzled by Hume’s problem of induction. I’m not at all satisfied with Kant’s treatment of it, and even Russell seems to shrug his shoulders.

AYER: The problem of induction? That’s child’s play! Let me read the solution from my new book, and you’ll see the answer clearly. [Pulls out a copy of Language, Truth, and Logic, and starts reading.] “… it appears that there is no possible way of solving the problem of induction, as it is ordinarily conceived. And this means that it is a fictitious problem, since all genuine problems are at least theoretically capable of being solved: and the credit of natural science is not impaired by the fact that some philosophers continue to be puzzled by it.”

SOC: So, wait. You’re saying that because you can’t figure out a way to solve the problem, it’s not a real problem?

AYER: Exactly! That’s the beauty of logical positivism! Anything that you can’t solve you just decide isn’t a real problem. Isn’t that great?

SOC: Really, is that all you have to do?

AYER: Well, you have to wave your hand around a bit, but that’s the general idea.

SOC: Hmm, how about another problem, like ethics. What do logical positivists say about what it means to do the right or wrong thing?

AYER: Ethics? Oh, please! That’s another easy one. Let me find the right passage. Here it is: “We can now see why it is impossible to find a criterion for determining the validity of ethical judgements. It is not because they have ‘absolute’ validity which is mysteriously independent of ordinary sense-experience, but because they have no objective validity whatsoever.”

SOC: Ah, I understand now. You’re saying that, since you can’t figure out a way to shoehorn ethical statements into your system, they aren’t real statements at all. Is that right?

AYER: Absolutely! That’s how it all works. All you have to do is say what you think—no argument is needed at all! And anyone who disagrees with you, just call them a metaphysician with a sneer.

SOC: So what’s the upshot of all this?

AYER: The upshot? Philosophy is over! It’s really incredible: all these smart philosopher-guys thought about all this stuff for thousands of years. But the solution was so obvious! Just stop having substantive arguments, and start dismissing everyone who disagrees with you as a befuddled moron. That way, you can be sure to get at the truth.

SOC: Wow, that’s quite a strategy. But I’m still a little curious about the specifics. For example, how do logical positivists deal with the question of truth?

AYER: Oh, Socrates, you ask the silliest questions! Well first, we just take an idea from Kant and Hume, and divide up all statements into analytic and synthetic statements. Then, we take an idea from William James, and insist that nothing is meaningful unless it is either a tautology or can be verified in experience. So that’s all of truth, either tautologies or science. It’s called the verification principle.

SOC: Interesting approach there… But, I wonder, what about this ‘verification principle’ itself? How does that fit into the system? How is this principle either empirical or a tautology? Clearly, the verification principle itself doesn’t picture any facts; in other words, the principle itself can’t be verified—so it’s not empirical. (Also, it would be absurd to verify a principle with the principle itself; that leads to a reductio ad absurdum.) Then, in order for it not to be meaningless, in your view, it must be a tautology. But it clearly isn’t a logical contradiction to assert that there are other criteria we might use to distinguish truth from falsity than the verification principle. So since the principle itself is clearly neither empirical nor a tautology, how can you justify it in your system?

AYER: Justify it? We don’t justify things. We assert that it’s true, and anyone who points out the contradictions we then assert are metaphysicians.

SOC: Wow, I see. Let me see if I get it. First you take ideas from other philosophers, then you throw them together into a half-coherent system, and finally you yell at anyone who disagrees. Is that right?

AYER: You got it! Logical positivism! You know, Socrates, you’re really a quick learner. Now there is no longer any legitimate reason to disagree with someone in philosophy. If they’re logical positivists, they’re right; and if not, they’re wrong. The Vienna Circle has arrived at the truth, and no further work need be done! As I say in my book: “One of the main objects of this treatise has been to show that there is nothing in the nature of philosophy to warrant the existence of conflicting philosophical parties or ‘schools.'” In other words, now that we figured everything out, there isn’t any good reason to fundamentally disagree with us. So all you have to do is join us, adopt our dogmas, and you will be saved from all falsity and metaphysics; you can believe exactly what we believe, and read the holy books of Russell and Wittgenstein and Hume.

SOC [Getting up from his seat]: Actually, I have to go somewhere… so I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave. But it was nice talking to you.

AYER [Getting up as well]: Oh, of course! Can I leave a book with you?

SOC: Sure…

AYER: Alright. [Lays book on table.] Nice talking with you. I hope to again!

SOC: Yep, yep.

[AYER leaves through front door, after vigorously shaking SOCRATES’ hand. A moment later, SOCRATES’ wife XANTHIPPE walks in.]

XAN: Who was that, dear?

SOC: Oh, never mind him, honey. Just a Mormon.

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Review: Feeling Good Together

Review: Feeling Good Together

Feeling Good Together: The Secret to Making Troubled Relationships WorkFeeling Good Together: The Secret to Making Troubled Relationships Work by David D. Burns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The path to intimacy is nearly always painful.


For a while now I have believed that the Life of Reading, if it isn’t to be merely a diversion or a way of stroking one’s own ego, must be a life of self-transformation. To be well-read does not only mean to be familiar with certain names and ideas, plots and quotes; more importantly, it entails the development of real changes in perspective, personality, and behavior. Thus when I recently ran into a problem in my relationship, I chose to see it as an opportunity to improve myself through reading. And since I’ve already been helped by David Burns’s Feeling Good, I turned once more to his work.

Burns begins with a simple but, for me, surprising point. Psychologists and the general public have long assumed that people experience relationship difficulties because they lack the proper interpersonal skills. They crave intimacy, but they don’t know how to achieve it. The obvious solution would be to train couples to express their feelings—to learn how to empathize and to be assertive. The problem is, despite many different techniques for doing this, couples counseling has a pretty disappointing success rate. Why is this?

The reason, says Burns, is because very often we don’t really want intimacy. There are lots of benefits of having an antagonistic relationship: you get to feel like you’re in the right, you feel powerful, you take without giving, you aren’t vulnerable, you get to complain to your friends about how mistreated you are—and this list only scratches the surface. This is the ugly side of human nature, the side of ourselves we most often don’t like to acknowledge. But coming to terms with this part of ourselves, and deciding whether we prefer the benefits of an intimate or an antagonistic relationship, is a crucial step: you’ve got to decide if you want intimacy, and if you’re willing to look at a part of yourself usually swept under the rug.

Next, Burns introduces his criteria for successful communication: empathize with your partner’s thoughts and feelings, clearly express your own feelings, and always treat your partner with respect. This sounds simple and even obvious, but when I analyzed a common interaction I had with my partner, I realized how badly I was communicating. Indeed, the more I analyzed my own interactions, the more I realized that I had been effectively shutting down communication. And when I imagined what it would be like to be on the receiving end of my words, I suddenly understood—with a pang of remorse—that it would have felt really awful.

After coming to terms with the flaws in one’s own behavior, Burns next teaches you skills for communicating more effectively. Conceptually, these are simple enough: understand your partner’s perspective, acknowledge their feelings, share your own feelings respectfully, give them praise, and encourage them to share more. However, doing this in the heat of battle, when both you and your partner are upset, is challenging and takes a lot of practice. The urge to blame your partner for your problems can be overwhelming; and treating someone else respectfully while you’re feeling angry, hurt, or rejected can be an enormous challenge. Thus Burns has you practice with a variety of imaginary scenarios and also provides some exercises to do with a friend. The practice is the really valuable part. Everyone says they want to empathize better, but most people don’t know how and don’t take the time to learn.

That’s the book in a nutshell. Personally, I found it to be clear, persuasive, and helpful; and although I still need practice, I have found the strategies highly effective. Even if you do all the exercises, it’s a pretty quick read, yet he packs quite a lot into the book.

Of course, this book isn’t perfect. One superficial thing that bothered me was Burns’s calling his strategies “Secrets,” which unfortunately makes him sound like a cheap con artist to me. Also unfortunate was his choice to use imaginary couples for his examples, thus giving most his anecdotes a rather artificial and flavorless quality. The men and women don’t seem like real people with real problems, but soulless illustrations. Another shortcoming, it seems to me, was that Burns didn’t discuss forgiveness. Relationships require constant forgiveness, and they reach crises when one of the partners can’t decide whether to forgive or not. I’ve known many people in relationships who were wondering, after years of accumulated pain, whether it was worth forgiving the partner or if it was better to let the relationship end. Usually I don’t know what advice to give, and I’d be curious to hear Burns on the topic.

But I can’t dwell on these faults, because once again I feel an enormous debt of gratitude to Burns, for I discovered something about myself as I read. While analyzing my own ineffective behavior, I began to wonder why I had acted in such a nasty way to a loved one. Gradually, I was forced to face the fact that I got a real pleasure from acting disrespectfully. Being condescending was a way of propping up my ego and maintaining a heightened self-image.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how many of my actions, both inside and outside my relationship, were done to gratify my ego and create a certain persona. Meanwhile, this prevented me from effectively sharing my emotions or feeling close to others. I was trapped by a need to feel superior, which required constant snobbishness..

It feels odd to write these things about myself, for truly it is ignoble to be so egotistic. But I had to look deeply at this part of myself, and understand that my condescension was fueled by a deep fear of inadequacy, before I could change my behavior. This meant giving up this self-image, letting my ego die—and it’s been hard. Feeling superior to others was something I savored, and now I’m trying to give it up. But it’s worth it. The compensation is being open to a new world of joys.

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Review: Moorish Spain

Review: Moorish Spain

Moorish SpainMoorish Spain by Richard Fletcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nostalgia is the enemy of historical understanding.

After reading and being disappointed with Menocal’s famous book on Moorish Spain, The Ornament of the World, I decided to take another crack with this book. And I am happy to report that Fletcher’s book is much better.

While Menocal is wistful and romantic, Fletcher is more detached and occasionally wry. While Menocal hardly acknowledges her sources, Fletcher is usually careful to note where he is getting his information from, even if this book lacks a scholarly bibliography. I found this a great relief, as I have been discovering that Moorish Spain is one of the most persistently mythologized periods in history. Washington Irving set the tone for this in his Tales of the Alhambra, but other writers have been following in his romantic footsteps ever since. Thus Fletcher’s dispassionate treatment was refreshing.

The main drawbacks of this book is that it is too short, and too scholarly. Fletcher was explicitly aiming for a popular audience, but the book he wrote would be better suited for an undergraduate class than a tourist. You cannot, for example, find many good vacation ideas in these pages; indeed, if this was your introduction to Moorish Spain, you might not even want to travel there at all.

Instead of focusing on intellectual and cultural history, the majority of this text deals with political and military history—the invasions, battles, territorial expansions, and so on. Admittedly, Fletcher also quotes poems, autobiographies, and includes pictures of famous buildings; he even has a whole chapter on the relations between Christians and Muslims during this time. But this information jostles for space among dozens of unfamiliar names of rulers who I do not much care to remember. Probably, if he wanted a better-selling book, he could have bot expanded it and included more of a personal touch. He is a fine writer and rather opinionated, so it would have served him well, I think, to have written something less formal.

In any case, I doubt there are any better books on the market for the history hungry tourist visiting Andalusia. This book will give you an overview of the period, and in the process inoculate you against much of the nonsense that gets thrown around about al-Andalus. It was not a paradise of tolerance, nor was it a perpetual war of faith against faith. As Fletcher said: “The past, like the present, is for most of the time rather flavourless.”

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